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The business of international art projects

Posted by Devin Cole  March 30, 2012 05:27 PM

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Public art is a tough business. Although the process of putting up a work of art in the public sphere is often entrepreneurial in spirit, driven by one person’s vision, the process can involve many layers of bureaucracy and fundraising in order to achieve success. When you take those efforts to another country, you can expand the number of people involved as well as the complications exponentially. But for those artists who have tried to create public works of art at home and abroad, the results can be very satisfying, if not life changing events.


Arthur Fiedler

Photo by David Smith

For Ralph Helmick, who is a notable Boston area artist, making work and showing in galleries had its limitations. Although his work was well received critically, the sales did not add up for him and he started to look beyond the gallery walls for a way to make a living as an artist. In 1984 he won the prestigious commission from the Friends of Fiedler and the City of Boston to create a memorial to Arthur Fiedler on the Charles River Esplanade. Helmick created a vibrant memorial by layering aluminum plates in successive contours, overhangs and undercuts so that from afar, they resolve into the profile of Fiedler’s head. Helmick’s first commission was the beginning of nearly 30 years of creating large scale, public works of art.

Judy Chicago critiqued the gallery system early on as an old boys club. Her response was to create community at the center of her art projects. The Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light spanned 8 years of her life’s work, from 1985-1993. Driven by very personal concerns of identity and nationality, she created a traveling exhibition of photography, paintings and visual art with her husband Donald Woodman that addressed the impact of the holocaust on civilization as a whole. The exhibition traveled to many institutions including the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in 1995. Chicago and Woodman’s artwork revealed the loss of humanity in the victims as well as in the perpetrators. By traveling to the sites of the concentration camps and witnessing the cultural tragedy first hand, they were able to respond to the societal consequences of the holocaust with a visual dialogue of artwork.

Stephan Ross felt the need to create a permanent memorial to the victims of the Holocaust and he, along with the support of a committee of elected officials and employees in the City of Boston, were able to create the New England Holocaust Memorial. The monument was built by Stanley Saitowitz and dedicated on October 22, 1995. It is sited on the Freedom Trail to ‘foster memory of and reflection on one of the great tragedies of our time, the Holocaust (Shoah).’

The memorial consists of six glass towers, one for each death camp, each one over 50 feet high, etched with six million numbers that suggest the tattooed numbers on the victims’ bodies. A team of government, private and non-profit agencies oversees the site, including its programming & management. The placement alongside local sites of American history, invites reflection on the meaning of freedom and oppression at home and abroad.

Although not permanent constructions, the projects of Krzysztof Wodiczko often leave traces of memory in the public record and experiences that last a lifetime. In 1998, he was commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary art to create a work of public art in Charlestown.

He chose to project a video loop that featured interviews with the mothers whose children had been murdered in the community. His project addressed the recent rampage of gun violence that Charlestown seemed unable to break free of due to a ‘code of silence’ that protected the perpetrators. By projecting the stories of the murdered children onto the Bunker Hill monument, the artist made an implicit comparison between their loss and the state of war the community was experiencing.

The prominent voice of the women in the community has interesting historical precedents, since the Bunker Hill monument was largely funded by women’s handicrafts as Sarah J. Purcell wrote in her article, Commemoration, Public Art and the Changing Meaning of the Bunker Hill Monument in 2003 that was published in The Public Historian. In much the same way that Stephan Ross was able to garner support for a permanent memorial in Boston, Simon Wiesenthal led a group of public and private citizens to commission the British artist Rachel Whiteread to construct the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, or Nameless Library in Vienna. It is the central memorial for the Austrian victims of the Holocaust and Nazi Fascism. The memorial was dedicated on October 25, 2000 and consists of four walls whose surfaces resemble shelves of books, turned inside out. The spines of the books face inwards, and are not visible. The doors have no handles. The memorial style is consistent with Whiteread’s sculptural vocabulary, and resembles negative space, which reveals the cultural space of memory and loss created by the genocide of the European Jews.

Against the backdrop of these national and international Holocaust memorials, Karen Frostig is creating the Vienna Project. A faculty member at Lesley University and resident scholar at Brandeis University, she has been making artwork dealing with her Jewish identity, transnational citizenship and descendance from the survivors of the Holocaust in her family for some time.

The Legacy of War project tells her story as an American Jew of German-Jewish ancestry in the context of her father’s homeland, Austria, where she holds dual citizenship. Her photo collages in this series depict her father and uncle’s exile from ‘home’ and the genocide of her grandparents in Riga, Latvia. ‘Exiled Memories’ represents a transnational, transgenerational conversation about genocide and post-war reparations. Building upon the investigations on the Legacy of War, Karen Frostig created twelve panels of digitized prints that incorporate letters, photographs and paintings into a permanent installation at the University of Vienna where her father held a Phd in law & philosophy. He was expelled soon after Hitler’s occupation of Austria.

This project formed the seed of the forthcoming Vienna Project in 2013:


From the website, Orte der Erinnerung/The Vienna Project is a new time-based Holocaust memorial concept to be situated on the streets of Vienna, Austria in 2013. Orte der Erinnerung/The Vienna Project will be the first inclusive memorial in Europe to symbolically represent multiple groups of victims of National Socialism and the Holocaust, the named and the nameless on record within a given country, murdered between 1938-1945.

Forging a dynamic relationship between three interdisciplinary fields of study, art and new technologies, history and archival research, and Holocaust education and mediation studies, Orte der Erinnerung/The Vienna Project is envisioned as a “living” memorial based on a participatory model of engagement.

Similar to The New England and the Vienna Holocaust memorials, this project is the brainchild of a single person: Karen Frostig. She alone has envisioned it. However, it will take institutional support, government cooperation and international fundraising efforts to pull it off. Inspired by the dialogue surrounding works by Judy Chicago, Rachel Whiteread and Krzysztof Wodiczko, Frostig will forge ahead against exceedingly difficult challenges to bring her latest project to realization in Vienna.

Donna Dodson graduated cum laude from Wellesley College in 1990 with a Bachelor of Arts. Since 2000, Dodson has been honored with solo shows nationwide for her wood sculptures. Dodson enjoys public speaking, and has been a guest speaker in conferences, panels and forums at museums and universities in North America.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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